Cannabis Legalization Measures Must Also Clear Criminal Records

Cannabis is a powerful medicine, has numerous industrial hemp applications and is considered safe when used responsibly in a recreational manner. Yet a cannabis-related conviction subjects millions of Americans — mostly minorities — to over 48,000 different restrictions, blocking access to critical employment, housing, and financial opportunities. This reality makes no sense.

That’s why throughout the cannabis industry, and at Canopy Growth where I work, we are striving to end this injustice by investing in expungement efforts that can make the lives of millions of Americans better. Clearing all records eligible for expungement or sealing will allow people most harmed by the historic criminalization of cannabis to fully re-enter society and engage in a budding industry with tremendous economic promise.

And the numbers back it up.

Consider that one in three adults in the United States — 77 million Americans — have a criminal record. Nearly half of Black males and almost 40 percent of white males are arrested by age 23. And one needn’t be convicted to have a criminal record. Law enforcement and court databases frequently retain information about an arrest, even when the charges are dropped, or the accused is found not guilty.

Even more shocking are the increased rates at which Americans of color are prosecuted for non-violent cannabis offenses: Black Americans are more than three times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for cannabis, despite consuming cannabis at similar rates. Racially charged cannabis enforcement reaches back to the first “marihuana” laws, which provided a pretext to arrest Mexican immigrants and Black Americans in the 1930s. The racial bias stretches through President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs targeting minorities and the “hippie” culture he disdained. And it continues today, when “routine” traffic stops in Black and Brown communities turn into drug searches and forceful arrests.

Most of us are aware that an employer may rescind a job offer or an apartment rental may go to someone else if a criminal record issue surfaces on a background check. But these consequences are only the beginning. In some jurisdictions, a minor offense bars you from becoming a dog walker, a barber, a car salesperson or an HVAC technician. In other areas, you can’t serve on the P.T.A. board at your child’s school. And even more critical are the consequences that interfere with individuals’ ability to obtain education, housing and life insurance.

And then there is the right to vote. In 2020, 2.3 million Americans, disproportionately minorities, were disenfranchised because of prior felony convictions. They did their time but lost their voice.

To remove these barriers at the federal, state and local levels, we must advocate for expungement.

As part of our commitment, Canopy Growth began supporting National Expungement Week, or NEW, in 2017. NEW, now known as National Expungement Works, was formed by LaTorie Marshall to help more people get the second chance they deserve. Though it began as a legal aid event, it has become a national organization with highly engaged local chapters working all year long.

Despite the staggering statistic that less than 1 percent of grassroot nonprofit organizations run by women of color are the recipients of funding grants, LaTorie has turned NEW — with its nationwide grassroots reach — into a truly one-of-a-kind endeavor. NEW relies on a network of 632 volunteers to provide locale-specific record-clearing services. With this network, NEW helps over 3,000 individuals make their case every year. And in addition to legal relief, they provide a suite of wraparound services such as employment workshops, health screenings, and brake light repair that helps prevent arbitrary roadside searches in minority neighborhoods.

The bottom line is that cannabis decriminalization and federal legalization are equality issues. But these steps alone cannot undo decades of discriminatory application of America’s drug laws. To unwind the impacts, we must invite people of color, hard hit by unfair enforcement, to take part in the legal cannabis industry, and we must expunge criminal records so people can get on with their lives.

We must do all of these things, but progress will likely be slow. It usually is. At Canopy Growth, we’re proud to support NEW in the fight for second chances, one record at a time.


Hilary Black is the chief advocacy officer of Canopy Growth Corp.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult